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Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Putinism's Middle East Echoes - Part 1: High Putinism and Gamel Abdel Nasser's Rais-State

A poster welcoming Vladimir Putin to Cairo on his February 2015 state visit to Egypt

In the wake of the very public death of Boris Nemtsov within a stone's throw of the Kremlin, many commentators have done their best to establish whether President Vladimir Putin may have personally given the order to kill a political rival. Senior figures within the remnants of Russia's organized opposition such as Alexei Navalny and Leonid Volkov remain convinced that only Putin himself has the strength to order such a high profile killing. By contrast scholars and journalists such as Mark Galeotti or the investigative team at Novaya Gazeta have speculated that Nemtsov's death was the product of actions by nationalists, security services or individuals loyal to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov who may be increasingly operating outside of the Kremlin's control. Confronted with the assassination of Nemtsov and Putin's subsequent disappearance, these attempts at making sense of an unpredictable regime used comparisons with key moments in Russian history  to help frame their own interpretation of events. Such grand historical moments as the rise of the oprichniki under Ivan the Terrible, the Black Hundreds of the late nineteenth century, Stalin's purges and even Gorbachev's 'conservative turn' have been used to help explain Putin's actions and his own future legacy. Yet when looked at more closely such comparisons of events in contemporary Russia with past crises in Russian history are deeply flawed, potentially distorting our analysis of the emergence, structures and impact of the Putin regime. 

The Imperial autocracy under the Romanov dynasty contained factors underpinning its identity and institutions that have few equivalents in Putin's Russia. The existence of a land-holding nobility whose legitimacy was based on the dynastic continuity of the Romanov dynasty was a pillar of pre-1914 Imperial Russia. Political debate was defined by how conflicts between the nobility and emerging social groups in the cities affected repeated attempts by a tsarist elite to centralise state power. Though a siloviki nomenklatura has provided a degree of continuity within the security services and parts of the state capitalist elite, under the Putin regime it cannot draw on the long term continuity and ritualised dynastic legitimacy that even incompetent tsars could rely on until the late nineteenth century.

Comparisons with the Soviet Union also fall short. Throughout its existence, the USSR nominally adhered to an ideological framework that cut across ethnicity and religion. Though the state often promoted de facto russification under Stalin and Brezhnev, Communist ideology put limits on what could be said and done openly. Moreover, the institutional structures of the post-Stalinist Communist Party placed constraints on the leadership's freedom of manoeuvre, while also connecting the Soviet elite with a transnational movement that could be used to promote its interests. Despite Putin's attempts to use various ideological networks to mobilise support for his regime, there is no equivalent within contemporary Russia to the overarching ideological discourse that defined the Soviet experiment. Rather, the Putin regime uses Russian history as a symbolic resource that helps it justify its actions through references that are recognizeable to the Russian public. Yet such instrumentalization of history by an authoritarian regime does not necessarily mean that the underlying structures its leadership has put into place match those of previous eras in their country's history.

Rather than using such problematic historical models, it may be preferable to develop comparisons with forms of political organization and mobilization in other parts of the world that bear greater similarities to the structures and direction of travel of the Putin regime. In particular, a particular form of security service driven quasi-plebiscitary dictatorship initially developed by Egypt's Gamel Abdel Nasser in the 1950s contains remarkable parallels with the kind of state that Putin has constructed over the past fifteen years. Over the past sixty years, this Egyptian template has been emulated by authoritarian regimes from Libya to Pakistan and Syria to Sudan, a political space that many International Relations scholars such as Richard Haass have come to call the Greater Middle East.

In three posts this blog will outline how exploring the echoes within the Putinist state of regimes built by authoritarian leaders such as Nasser can provide us with a better understanding of how Russia has arrived at its current impasse and how it may evolve in future. The first section, High Putinism and Gamel Abdel Nasser's Rais State, will outline how Putin's mobilisation and consolidation strategies contain striking similarities with the efforts by Nasser to construct a power vertical in mid-Twentieth century Egypt. Examining the weaknesses and strengths of Nasser's experiment may help us understand the impact of what Brian Whitmore has described as the era of High Putinism, which came to a close with the Bolotnaya demonstration of 6 May 2012. In the second section, Late Putinism and the Hybrid Dictatorship of Muhammad Zia ul Haq, we will look at the parallels between the hybrid warfare strategies deployed by the Putin regime in Ukraine and Chechnya and the methods used by Pakistan's General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. His search for new sources for ideological legitimacy after a quasi-Nasserist approach to state mobilisation entered a period of crisis hold important lessons for those analysing the current Late Putinist phase Russia seems to have entered. The final section, Post-Putinism and Ali Abdallah Saleh's War of Revenge, will point to how the actions of Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh after his ouster from power could foreshadow the kind of behaviour Putin may display if he is no longer able to dominate the Russian political system. A better sense of such parallels between Putin and Saleh, whose attempt to consolidate power in the Nasserist style fractured Yemeni society in 1994, could help Ukrainian and European policy-makers ensure that Russia avoids the kind of state fracture that we are currently witnessing in Yemen.

High Putinism and Gamel Abdel Nasser's 'Rais-State'

On the surface you could find few more different politicians than Vladimir Putin and Gamel Abdel Nasser. While Putin's talents as a public speaker are limited, Nasser was legendary for flamboyant speeches that galvanised the support of vast crowds. Given to sardonic quips, Putin has built an image of cool detachment, providing many Russians with a sense that their president can calmly guide their country through periods of crisis. Though Putin has tried to work crowds at such events as the annual regime youth convention at Lake Seliger, he has tended to fall flat in anything but the most controlled exchanges with large groups of people outside the elite. By contrast, as a talented demagogue Nasser could enthusiastically engage with Egyptians and other Arabs of all backgrounds. This 1966 clip of Nasser pouring scorn on the Muslim Brotherhood is one of many examples of a wit and charm which Putin has never been able to match:

Nasser mocks the Muslim Brotherhood, 1966.

But if one looks beyond these differences in style, the strong similarities between the substance of the Nasser regime and the first, High Putinist, decade of Putin's time in office stand out. As a young officer Nasser was part of a coalition of military, business and political factions including the Muslim Brotherhood which came together to bring down the Egyptian monarchy through the 'Free Officers' coup of 1952. Yet as Anne Alexander has pointed out, as leader of the 'Free Officers' Nasser was initially only one of several key figures operating under the leadership of General Muhammad Naguib. Although public agitation played a role, Nasser managed to attain a dominant position after the Muslim Brotherhood and other factions overplayed their hand and Naguib was outmanoeuvred through opaque in-fighting within the military. 

Though much has been made of Nasser's charismatic public persona by biographers such as Said Aburish, his rise combined covert elite factional battles with open political campaigning that paved the rise of a relative outsider from obscurity to dominance within four years. In fact, Nasser's legendary status as Egypt's charismatic Rais (President) who could sway a crowd through wit and quickness of thought was only cemented after his calm response to an assassination attempt by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954. It is this managed rise, with its public campaigning concealing equally significant battles for turf and dominance behind the scenes that one can already see the parallels with the spectacular career of an obscure former KGB officer in 1990s Russia. For Nasser, as with Putin, every move from 1950 onwards combined an increasingly public presence with various covert moves to intimidate his opponents and strengthen the position of his faction within the military, state and economy. 

The actions Nasser took to cement his hold on power also have some similarities with the actions Putin took in the first two years of his presidency. In ruthlessly turning on his erstwhile allies within the Muslim Brotherhood and engaging in confrontations with former colonial powers France and Britain, Nasser was able to mobilise a significant proportion of the population behind his social and pan-Arab foreign policy agendas. In a contemporary echo of these strategies, Putin used war against an internal enemy in the Chechens along with a more assertive Russian stance on the international political stage to solidify public support for the centralisation of state power. Admittedly, the kind of conflicts Nasser and Putin used to consolidate their positions were very different in nature, reflecting the distinct challenges they faced at specific historical junctures. While Nasser used an anti-colonial quasi-socialist ideological framework to legitimate his political project, Putin emphasised Russia's great power status and at least outwardly claimed to support the creation of a functioning free market. Yet the structural outcomes that both sought to bring about have remarkable parallels. 

In both cases authoritarian leaders who had recently seized power focused public anger against internal as well as external enemies to help build an increasingly centralised power vertical. Putin used the brutal suppression of the Chechen insurgency to symbolically turn the tide in what was seen as a crisis of Russian statehood. Nasser's ruthless political campaigns against the Muslim Brotherhood marked a means through which he could impose central discipline on the Egyptian state. In 1950s and 1960s Egypt as in early 2000s Russia appeals to national pride and a greater role in global affairs helped cement the image of the ruler as the protector of national greatness. To create a facade of democratic legitimacy, Putin and Nasser used dubious electoral processes as a quasi-plebiscitary element that could be used to claim that the public had concretely express its full support for the president and his factions. Curtis Ryan illustrated how the Nasser government also used various means to control opposition actions in order to simulate acceptance of its rule across different milieus in a way that would have made Putin's former Chief of Staff for internal affairs Vladislav Surkov proud.

In the process, Putin and Nasser presented themselves as modernisers who centralised power at the expense of previously autonomous regional and business elites who were deemed to be holding the nation back. However much corruption still marred the day to day life of citizens, intermittent attempts to crack down on corrupt officials maintained a degree of discipline within the state, cementing the impression of a benevolent leader toiling away at all hours to protect the people. This attempted modernization of the economy and society through intensive centralization of a power vertical was legitimised through appeals to national pride, with Putin and Nasser equating a restoration of centralized state power with a restoration of national greatness. Though the strategic implications of an increased invocation of pan-Arabism in the late 1950s Middle East and some sort of cross-border 'Russian world' after 2005 remain distinct from one another, both reflected a deep conviction within state elites of that intervention in culturally related states, the 'near abroad' as many post-1990 Russians called them, was an entirely legitimate course of action. In both cases though there were often profound disagreements within the elite about the extent to which the state should seize coordinate economic activity, the central leadership remained focussed on economic and technological modernization as a means with which to challenge rival powers.

Nasser inspects a Russian Ilyushin aircraft purchased
 as part of his Egyptian modernization programme, 1957.

What remained of the old order was forced to lobby for support for their pet projects from a powerful and clannish elite centred on a presidential court. Both Putin and Nasser moved to displace previously powerful economic figures by empowering cronies in key sections of the economy. This put them in a position to arbitrate between various factions and if necessary buy off potential threats from within what remained of a middle class and business networks. As John Waterbury pointed out, during the first decade and half of Nasser's rule the security services came to play an increasingly central role in this process, entrenching their position along with the military as arbiters far beyond their initial intelligence remit. While the sources of national wealth remain quite distinct between mid-twentieth century Egypt and 1990s Russia, this systematic co-optation of great chunks of the economy by military and intelligence leaders in order to create a form of centrally coordinated state capitalism became a feature of both the Nasser and Putin regimes.

The resulting intertwined nature between military, intelligence service and business elites, which Roberto Roccu explores in an excellent study of the political economy of modern Egypt, have become a lasting legacy of the Nasser era that remained at the core of the most recent attempts to roll back the democratic gains of the 2011 revolution. Moreover, Nasser's enormous political influence across the Arab world after outmanoeuvring the British, French and Israelis during the Suez crisis and strengthening ties with non-Western powers including the Soviet Union encouraged many leaders who seized power in the Greater Middle East during this period to consciously emulate his model of government. Political strongmen emerged in states as varied as Libya, North Yemen, Iraq and even in some ways Pakistan, who both absorbed aspects of Nasser's ideological model and adopted many of the state modernization initiatives that seemed to be pushing Egypt to the cusp of great power status by the mid-1960s. These state structures, and the way they have thrown their support behind a leader from the intelligence services who is willing to protect their interests, be it in the early 1960s or now under General Sisi, continue to reproduce power relations that would be more than familiar to most Russia watchers.
Structural parallels between the era of High Putinism between 2000 - 2008 and the Nasser regime of the 1950s and 1960s could then provide a few possible hints as to the internal balance of power the lies behind the curtain within the Kremlin. Exploring the rivalries, institutional frameworks and mobilization strategies of such an analogous regime may therefore be a more useful methodological tool for budding kremlinologists than any number of references to Stolypin or Beria. There are in particular three fundamental ways the rise of the Nasser regime in the mid-1950s as well as the growing problems it faced by the late 1960s can help us develop useful insights into how political structures developed by the Putin regime at its height have helped lead it into its current impasse.

The first is dependence on a form of charismatic leadership that lacks a strong basis of legitimacy in long-established dynastic traditions or a well-formulated political ideology. Though pan-Arabism and massive infrastructure projects have became part of the Rais myth that shaped popular memory of Nasser, as Fouad Ajami pointed out at the time attempts by his regime to develop a more systematic ideology often veered into incoherence. While pan-Arabist rhetoric provided a recognizeable core to Nasserism, the lack of any systematic economic or social analysis underpinning it gave the Nasserist political elite considerable political flexibility. Without such a coherent socio-economic ideological programme, Nasser's successors from Sadat to Sisi were in a position to simply eject most projects and ideals he claimed to espouse when they became inconvenient. While the profoundly repressive and increasingly corrupt institutional framework established by Nasser survived his death in 1969, the great bulk of his personal political agenda was largely been abandoned a decade later. The ephemeral nature of much of what defined Nasserism should be kept in mind when discussing the extent to which the particular ideological projects Vladimir Putin's inner circle are trying to promote will survive after he has left the scene.

The second key parallel between the Nasser and Putin regimes at their height is the considerable autonomy state institutions were able to carve out as leading officials became personally answerable only to a specific leader at the apex of the power vertical. From the very start, state modernization was hampered by the leader's need to foster rivalries between state institutions in order to prevent the formation of alliances within the bureaucracy that could represent a threat. As long as economic and political conditions enabled a single individual and his inner circle to exert tight control over every aspect of policy these state institutions displayed few signs of independence. Yet when the power vertical begins to fail, the lack of strong interconnections between key institutions leads to fragmentation, as each autonomous state entity from the judiciary through and security through to regulatory agencies do everything possible to prevent any challenge to their sphere of influence.

The way in which such institutional balkanization can lead to profoundly dysfunctional outcomes for Egyptian society has been explored by Nathan Brown in his excellent work on the Egyptian judiciary. Brown's key insight was that once the power of the centre began to erode in the final years of the Sadat administration, the Egyptian judiciary effectively carved out semi-autonomous control over its sphere of responsibility, doing everything to fend off attempts by Mubarak to reassert stronger state control over the judicial process. Thus after the Tahrir revolution of 2011, the battles by judges to assert their independence against the security services did not result in any underlying democratization of the judiciary. Rather, once judges, lawyers and Ministry of Justice officials had received reassurances from the Ministry of Interior that their bureaucratic turf would not be impinged upon, most members of the judiciary enthusiastically joined the security services' campaign to reassert state power in order to protect their institutional autonomy. Despite a facade of unified purpose under Mubarak or Sisi, with these trends playing out across the bureaucracy the Egyptian state has therefore fragmented into semi-autonomous rival institutions whose interests occasionally align. 

This precedent may provide some indication of what may have taken place within the Russian state behind the facade of High Putinism. The Kremlin's power vertical may have asserted dominance over state and society for a while. Yet by discouraging interconnections between agencies and ministries, below the surface it may have fostered the emergence of increasingly self-contained institutional actors. Rather than hollowing out the state, as Sam Greene has speculated, the damage caused by Putinism to governance in Russia is therefore of a different nature. Once Putin or his successors lose the ability to sustain the power vertical, competing institutional verticals may come to the fore. As early as 2007, the so-called siloviki wars between rival security services already indicated that such tensions were bubbling just below the surface. As Egypt witnessed in the final years before the fall of Mubarak, when a system dependent on a highly personalised form of government breaks down, each agency, ministry and even the judiciary may rush to assert its control over the specific spheres of political and economic life that fall within their remit. Such turf wars between structurally distinct institutions could make it extraordinarily difficult for any future Russian president to restore cohesion and some semblance of good governance. Rather, it may face the limitations Nasser's inheritance has imposed on Egypt's current Sisi regime, faced as it is with institutions whose leaders are too weak to become dominant yet strong enough to prevent much needed change in their areas of responsibility.

Perhaps a final useful parallel between both regimes that could help us analyse the legacy of early 2000s High Putinism are the challenges they faced in mobilizing support without losing tight control of the public sphere. For Nasser, promoting Arab nationalism based on an assumption that Egypt was the cultural and political centre of the Arab speaking peoples was fundamental to his regime's legitimacy. It both justified deep Egyptian involvement in the affairs of its neighbouring states, while lessening the popular pressure on the regime to develop coherent reforms of the social order. With Egypt experiencing a period of economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s, the Nasser regime had the financial leeway to expand parts of the welfare state and engage in prestige projects such as the building of the Aswan Dam designed to increase industrial and agricultural production.

Yet as Clement Moore pointed out, by the mid-1960s botched state attempts to consolidate control over the Egyptian economy were causing serious social problems that remained endemic in subsequent decades. Moreover, Barbara Zollner has set out how despite the execution of Sayid Qutb and other senior figures within the Muslim Brotherhood, attempts to eradicate its influence over Egyptian life never quite succeeded. Thus, after overcoming the British, French and Israeli intervention in Suez in 1956, the regime searched for repeated foreign policy successes that could help sustain the popular enthusiasm that enabled Nasser to entrench his position in the 1950s. Yet the use of foreign policy initiatives and pan-Arab projects to mobilize popular support led to short-term adventurism that only added to Egypt's long term instability. Thus the failed attempt at unification with Syria between 1958 and 1961, a botched military intervention in Yemen in 1962 and finally the disastrous war with Israel in 1967 were all the product of the regime's attempt to sustain legitimacy at a time when its efforts at state modernization were increasingly crowned with failure.

Here again the evolution of the Nasser regime and the increased use of tactical foreign policy gambles by the Putin regime to maintain popular support in the face of deepening internal problems after 2008 demonstrate a remarkably similar trajectory. The siloviki wars of 2007 and the complex compromises surrounding Dmitri Medvdev's potemkin rise to the presidency were all strong indications that the modernization of the state and the economy, were beginning to run into serious difficulties. Stanislav Secrieru among others pointed out how internal conflicts over the modernization agenda helped pave the way for a more aggressive approach to foreign policy which culminated on the war against Georgia in 2008. The way in which the failures of an modernization agenda can feed into increased foreign policy adventurism to sustain popular support is a common pattern for many authoritarian regimes. Yet the parallels between the Nasser and the Putin regimes and the role foreign policy played in a controlled mobilization of popular support around quasi-imperial nostalgia and transnational cultural identities indicates that the domestic impact of 1950s and 1960s Egyptian foreign policy could be a useful point of comparison for those examining the legacy of the first decade of Putin's rule.

With such remarkable structural parallels between the Nasser and early Putin regimes, exploring recent Egyptian history could provide historians and political scientists with a better understanding of how Putin's attempt to legitimize his own position as Russia's Rais has reshaped state institutions. Yet while Putin has remained in power long enough to be confronted with a crisis that destabilized his power vertical, Nasser died in office before the aftermath of the 1967 War forced the Egyptian political elite to engage in de-Nasserization. As a successor with his own distinct power base, Anwar Sadat was able to distance himself from Nasser's errors of judgement with the kind of radical break that the Medvedev-Putin 'tandem' never seemed capable of bringing about.

While the political direction of Egypt diverges after the death of Nasser diverges significantly from that of Russia after the 'castling' and Bolotnaya crises of 2011, there is another state in the Greater Middle East that experienced structural changes and developed mobilization strategies very similar to that of the Late Putinist period that is still unfolding today. With a collapse of established legitimization strategies for both civilian and military elites, late 1970s Pakistan saw a set of ideological and strategic shifts that very much mirror the course taken by the Kremlin since 2012. This period of elite transformation, which will be explored in the next post, was initiated and guided by an irascible military leader, General Muhammad Zia ul Haq.

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